We asked IMC Children’s Doctor, Dr Arti Jaiswal and Dietitian Vanessa McNamara all about parenting fussy eaters and how to approach this tricky topic.
What age can ‘fussy eating’ start?
Dr Arti: Fussy eating can start as an infant and it is totally normal for kids to be fussy one day and not the next.
Vanessa: Fussy eating can begin as early as solids are introduced for some babies. The most common age for children to start showing signs of fussiness with food is from 12 months and can last well into the toddler years and longer for some kids. It is a normal stage of development though and can be expected at some stage during pre-school years.
What does ‘fussy eating’’ actually mean?
Dr Arti: It means your child doesn’t like shape, texture, taste or appearance of different foods.
Vanessa: There is no clear definition of ‘fussy eating’ or ‘picky eating’, but generally a fussy eater will have a strong preference for and/or aversion to particular foods or food groups and will be very resistant to trying new or unfamiliar foods.
Do children tend to ‘grow out of it’?
Dr Arti: Yes! That is the best part of it. With time and patience and exposure to different variety of foods, most kids do grow out of it. Interestingly, kids have very pronounced taste buds and they are more sensitive to flavours as children. But as we get older, our tastebuds decrease. The average person has about 10,000 taste buds. But as a person ages, some of those taste cells don’t get replaced. An older person may only have 5,000 working taste buds. That’s why certain foods may taste stronger to kids than they do to adults.
Vanessa: Yes, most children do grow out of this normal fussy stage once they develop greater autonomy and are influenced more by their peers. There can be a variety of reasons why children become fussy with food so it really depends on the cause as to when they grow out of it. When the picky eating is more extreme, however, this may take a lot longer.
How can I encourage my child to try to foods?
Dr Arti: Have patience and don’t force feed. Keep introducing same food in various ways. Studies show that it can take over 20 times to have a vegetable or new food tried, but eventually it can and will work. Also, be a role model in how you eat as a parent. Show your kids how to snack on fruits and vegetables and eat a variety of different foods by setting an example. Our kids follow our eating behaviors closely.
Vanessa: As Dr Arti has said, take the pressure off and model positive eating behaviours. The more we try to encourage children to try a new food, the less successful we will be.
I suggest parents start by providing constant exposure to new foods. Then they can gently encourage interaction with new foods – squishing them with a fork, moving from one cup to another. Once they feel comfortable with this, kids may enjoy touching the food and riding it up their arm, sneezing it off their head, playing with it and generally making the food fun. This helps a child to trust the food by exploring all of its physical properties first before even thinking about eating it. Involving them in food shopping and food preparation is also a great way to help them feel more comfortable with a food.
What are the top Dos and Don’t’s in dealing with a fussy eater?
- Keep mealtimes calm and without distraction.
- Don’t force a child to finish food if she doesn’t like it, but encourage her to try the food – with a lick or small bite. If she doesn’t like it, let it be. The more you battle, the less successful you will be to get your child to try again in the future.
- Ignore any bad behavior with food. If she doesn’t want to eat and is having a tantrum, offer a piece of fruit (NOT another meal – remember you are not a short order cook!) and allow her to finish that as her meal.
- Don’t give too many snacks or milk before mealtimes. This may fill up kids and will decrease their appetite.
- Allow kids to eat with their friends. When they see kids eating something different, they are more likely to try it.
- For fussy older children, I encourage families to pick up fresh fruits and vegetables together (ideally where the child can pick something new to try) and cook together. Getting kids in the kitchen helps create some interest in new foods and trying new things.
- Make mealtimes fun. Take the pressure off so that everyone enjoys them more.
- Eat with your children (at a table) and show them how much you enjoy a variety of delicious, nutritious foods.
- Always provide a safe food for your child at each meal so you know they will eat something. Also always provide new and challenging foods alongside them to help them feel more comfortable with new foods.
- Provide plenty of positive encouragement when it comes to food and offer praise when a new food is eaten.
- Encourage as much interaction with the food as possible. This may get messy and food may get wasted, but it is an essential way for children to feel happy and comfortable around food.
- Have set meal and snack times and stick to them as much as possible. Grazers tend to eat just enough to suppress their appetite but not enough to tide them over for the next 2.5-3 hours.
- Don’t yell, threaten, punish or force-feed a picky eater as it will only add fuel to the fire.
- Don’t become a short-order cook. Cook one meal for the whole family but cater so that there is at least one food that each person will eat. Offering meals family-style in the centre of the table can help to overcome this.
When should a parent seek external help? And who should they go to?
Dr Arti: Anytime you have a concern about your child’s eating, please see your doctor. If a child refuses to eat and is having difficulty with weight gain or only eats 2-3 different foods (severely limited diet), please go see your paediatrican.
Vanessa: Red flags that your child is more than just a picky eater could be that they:
- Gag or vomit at the sight, smell or touch of foods
- Are unable to eat family meals as their diet is so limited
- Eliminate major food groups from their diet
- Show signs of inadequate growth and development
Always speak to your GP or paediatrician if you have any concerns about your child’s growth or eating habits. I would also recommend seeing a dietitian experienced with picky eaters to discuss any stage of your child’s eating journey. They can provide individual advice based on your child’s current intake and preferences.
Dr Vanessa McNamara is an Australian trained dietitian that is available for appointments at IMC Children’s clinic. Call 6887 4440 to make an appointment.